There’s a moment in “The Last Jedi” when all the sound drops out and complete silence descends. For a few seconds, there is nothing. No music, no white noise, no dialogue. All falls away, and for a franchise that has always been easily recognizable for its iconic sound design and legendary scores, it’s a strange moment, yet an undeniably brilliant one. “The Last Jedi” functions in much the same way. Much of what has historically characterized “Star Wars” on a superficial level is deconstructed and subverted here even as director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) takes special care to celebrate the most important things — namely the focus on battles between good and evil and the sense of hope in the face of insurmountable odds. The film he crafts is a bold, dark and occasionally weird entry in the “Star Wars” saga, one that stands as the best and most necessary chapter since “The Empire Strikes Back.”
This isn’t to say that “The Last Jedi” is perfect. While several sequences serve to further character arcs, they often feel disconnected from the central plot, and a certain scene stands out as particularly ill-advised, brought to life by a special effect that — in an otherwise visually gorgeous film — is comparatively subpar.
But couched in a story otherwise exceptionally told, these flaws do little to detract from the rest of the film. The film picks up moments after the end of J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens,” as the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, “Catastrophe”) must flee their base in the aftermath of their victory at Starkiller Base in the previous film. As the First Order doggedly pursues them through space, Rey (Daisy Ridley, “Murder on the Orient Express”) arrives at the site of the first Jedi temple to receive instruction from living legend Luke Skywalker (a never-better Mark Hamill, “Brigsby Bear”), only to find that he is not the man the galaxy remembers.
This base story, for what it is, is fine if occasionally slow-moving. What sets it apart is the thematic work Johnson does with both his script and direction as he uses this plot to explore ideas of acknowledging the past and using it to grow while still letting go of what is not necessary for that growth. In essence, “The Last Jedi” is a story about the tricky relationship between the past and the future, history and legacy. The meta-narrative for a certain space opera entering its fourth decade of existence should be obvious.
Because in order to stay relevant, in order to mean as much to future generations as it did to me and the innumerable die-hards who have come before me, “Star Wars” needed to change. It would have been easy to rehash the same plotlines and archetypes ad infinitum — “The Force Awakens” did so and wound up being a pretty great movie, all things considered — but eventually, it would grow stale. Someone needed to break the mold, and “The Last Jedi” is Johnson doing so in bold fashion.
It would be easy to leave it at that, to act as if the boldness is enough to qualify “The Last Jedi” as a great movie, but it isn’t. Boldness alone is novelty; it must be grounded in the characters and the story. This is what makes “The Last Jedi” something truly special. It isn’t that it takes everything we think “Star Wars” can do and takes a hard left turn into new territory. It’s the way Johnson grounds those creative decisions in the characters, old and new, bringing them to more interesting, thought-provoking and emotionally intense places with each scene. It’s the way the actors bring those characters to life in some of the best performances in franchise history and the characters, in turn, embody the themes — redemption, bravery and hope above all — that have always defined “Star Wars” and will continue to define it even as it enters this new chapter.